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Labels do count

29 Aug 2013

| Author: Stan Wade

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Labels do count

I have always considered myself an engineer at heart. When I did my first degree, many people considered IT as an engineering discipline. I was a strong supporter of this classification and still do agree with it, having become a Chartered Engineer many years ago now.

So to me, the important stuff was always about what you did, and how you did it, more than what you called it. I have never really cared about labels for things, as long as there is a common understanding. However, that is making the assumption that other people think like me, and they don’t.

Labels come with baggage in the form of word association. We use them all the time to describe entities for one form or another. A ‘straw man’ for example, people know instinctively is a first-cut model which almost certainly won’t end up being the final decision. An ‘iron man’ on the other hand is a lot more robust and will probably deflect some of the bullets of detailed scrutiny.

That’s great when the term implies all the attributes you want. However, some simply don’t and lead people to make assumptions and assign inappropriate characteristics to the label. I distinctly remember talking to a manager some years ago about user stories and realising his thinking was more about War and Peace comprehensiveness than Haiku conciseness. This was all down to using the word ‘story’ without making sure he understood what it meant in Agile terms!

What made things even more difficult was he was the kind of person that didn't ask questions because he felt it exposed a level of ignorance and thus made him look weak. Of course, not being capable of asking the question was his real weakness.

My favourite is the term ‘sprint’. A short distance dash. To me this brings up images of Usain Bolt, blasting down the track for a few metres and then stopping to get his breath back. He certainly isn’t going to be doing that again for some time, having just expended everything he had in less than ten seconds.

Do we want this in a development environment? No! We want a continuous stream of value. This isn’t a sprint, it’s at least a middle distance event. It’s a Mo Farrah challenge in all reality, with work continuously being delivered over time, not short, exhausting, unsustainable bursts. I far prefer ‘Time Box’ or ‘Iteration’, but these are used so infrequently now.

And there are many more. As I mentioned before, the word ’story’ to most people implies something of detailed substance. What we create as stories are quite removed from the material Dickens produced and yet they share a common name. Agile scrums are not adversarial between two teams fighting over a resource. Backlogs are not lists of things we should have already done, but prioritised business opportunities, and Scrum Master does not have a cape, wear his pants on the outside and leap over tall buildings in a single bound!

For people who understand what they all mean, it’s not an issue. However, when these terms get used in less informed company, a whole raft of misunderstandings and inappropriate behaviour can emerge. This is especially true when people don’t want to ask perfectly reasonable questions because they fear they may be viewed as ignorant. I bear many a scar from this kind of incomplete communication.

So labels do matter! Build a glossary for your organisation and talk them though with people. Don’t let them get misunderstood or assigned inappropriate attributes. It’s so easy to forget our language sometimes isn’t obvious and can be easily misunderstood.

If your organisation is seeking support for its Agile transformation, including helping to reach a shared understanding around Agile terms and processes, please get in touch.

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Stan Wade

Stan is a highly experienced Agile mentor, with almost two decade's experience of Agile over a number of market sectors, primarily in the financial sector. He takes a business-led approach to IT, complemented by a strong development and operations background.

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